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Five workers at Michigan wildlife lab diagnosed with latent form of tuberculosis

Administering a tuberculosis skin test.
wikimedia commons
Administering a tuberculosis skin test.

Officials say five people who worked in a Michigan wildlife disease lab were diagnosed last year with a latent form of tuberculosis.

The Department of Natural Resources lab processes thousands of deer heads during hunting season to check for chronic wasting disease and bovine TB.

TB is an illness caused by bacteria that attack the lungs. It can be fatal, although a latent form shows no symptoms and doesn't make people feel sick.

DNR spokesman Ed Golder says it's been the department's "working assumption" that the workers got TB from infected deer. But Golder says, "We can't say for sure."

The story first was reported online by Bridge Magazine:

The Department of Natural Resources — which has made no public announcement — confirmed the TB cases in response to inquiries from Bridge Magazine this week. The infected workers have undergone several months of antibiotic treatment, and hundreds of other DNR employees were offered testing. The outbreak, the first of its kind at the 10-person lab, was diagnosed last summer. Workers at the lab were conducting tests on thousands of deer in search of two challenging diseases: chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis, which is commonly found in cattle but also in deer and other animals.

A DNR lab supervisor said it remains unclear what if anything the workers did, or did not do, that left them vulnerable to infection, according to Bridge. 

“There was no documented incident. There wasn’t anything we could pinpoint. There wasn’t anyone who did anything wrong,” lab supervisor Kelly Straka told Bridge. “I can tell you that it has never happened ... before” in her career. “As someone who cares about their staff, it is upsetting.”

Bovine TB is most commonly found in cattle and animals such as bison, elk and deer. At least 150 Michigan deer have tested positive for the illness since 2014, according to The Detroit News.

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Paulette is a digital media reporter and producer for Michigan Public. She started as a newsroom intern at the station in 2014 and has taken on various roles in that time, including filling in as an on-air host.